The holidays tend to wreak havoc on not just our waistlines, but our wallets. In 2015, the average shopper racked up $1,073 in holiday debt, and it's estimated that more than half of those who took on debt that year fell victim to the same trap in 2016. Furthermore, despite the fact that some families are smart enough to create budgets for buying holiday gifts, 58% fail to actually stick to their established spending limits. If you're coming off the 2016 holiday season with a pile of bills that need to be paid, here's your four-step plan for getting back on track.
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1. Figure out how much you spent
Before you can think about paying off your holiday debt, you'll need to determine how much money you actually spent. Depending on your billing cycles, you may not see the damage reflected on your credit cards till later this month, so don't be too comforted if a statement comes in lower than anticipated -- chances are, if you go online and review your pending purchases, you'll see more charges just waiting to post. Similarly, you'll need to account for any purchases you paid for with checks that have not yet been cashed. Coming up with an accurate total is a crucial part of eliminating holiday debt as quickly as possible.
2. Prioritize credit cards with the highest interest rates
Not all credit cards are created equal. Store credit cards, for example, tend to have higher interest rates than regular credit cards (though this isn't always the case), so take a look at your bills and determine which will be the costliest to carry. From there, create an ordered list so you'll know which debts to pay off first.
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3. Examine your budget -- or create one in the first place
If your goal is to recover from the holidays quickly, you'll need to take steps to free up extra cash in your budget. Of course, this assumes you have a budget -- almost 60% of Americans don't. If you're like the majority, you'll need to first sit down and create a budget listing your monthly expenses. (You can follow these tips if you're not sure where to begin.) From there, take a look at your negotiable costs -- things like entertainment, dining out, and clothing -- and figure out which expenses you're willing to minimize to chip away at your debt. Your budget should always allow for some savings, so if you truly can't find an ounce of wiggle room, you'll need to consider making lifestyle changes, like downsizing your living space.
4. Use extra money to pay off debt
In addition to whatever sum you're able to extract from your budget for debt-paying purposes, you should use whatever extra money comes your way to knock out those bills. If you have a raise or bonus kicking in later this month, take that extra cash and apply it to a credit card payment. If not, you may want to consider working a side gig to bring home some additional income. Many retailers, for example, continue to need extra staff in January, so jump on the opportunity before it fades.
Remember, the longer you carry your holiday debt, the more it's going to end up costing you over time. Imagine you racked up $1,500 in credit card bills averaging 20% interest. If it takes you a full year to repay what you owe, you'll wind up throwing away $167 on interest charges. On the other hand, if you manage to knock out that debt in just three months' time, you'll spend just $50 on interest.
One final thing: Once you do manage to pay off your holiday debt, start putting extra money aside for the upcoming holiday season. Otherwise, you could very well find yourself in the same stressful situation come this time next year.
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